Let’s extend grace to education leaders as Kentucky students head back to school

Our nation’s education leaders are asked to take on many roles in their good work to promote safe and supportive learning environments for their students. In many cases, “punching bag” is among them. 

School principals face pressure from all sides: staff members, parents, students, and district administrators. Nearly half have considered leaving the profession because of the relentless workloads. District superintendents may as well have a permanent target on their backs, given the unique challenges they face in rolling out new reforms, overseeing district finances, and managing the delicate balancing act of community relations. Even in a pre-COVID world, these hurdles were enough to designate school administration as one of the loneliest jobs in K-12 education. 

But now, our nation’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic means our school leaders must engage in the sisyphean task of leading their school systems through a public health crisis for which they never could have prepared. For that, we as teachers, parents, and community members need to stand with our leaders as they navigate these uncharted waters.

School leaders across the nation are being asked to act as public health officials by proxy. In addition to reconsidering their traditional responsibilities — like transportation and facilities management, among others —leaders must now take on the arduous duties of temperature monitoring and contact tracing. Communication with local health departments will become an everyday occurrence. Enforcing social distancing rules will dominate the school day. If COVID-19 does in fact force school leaders to reimagine education altogether, we must curb our expectations that they can satisfy everyone in doing so.

“We are in this cycle of implement, reflect, adapt, and repeat,” says superintendent Jason Glass of Jefferson County Public Schools, CO. “It’s a learning cycle because there’s a lot of stuff happening we didn’t expect and didn’t know how it would work.” Months after the pandemic’s inception, this cycle remains intact. As schools around the state prepare for in-person reopenings this month, we must embrace the fact that hiccups will surely follow. Gaffes will be made. And yet, as educators, parents, and community members, now is the time to coalesce around our leaders. Here’s how.

  • Seek to understand before criticizing. School officials across the country are being asked to carry more than their own weight. Even former Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees. Let’s seek to understand the unique challenges school leaders are facing before assuming ill will or incompetence. 
  • Provide input. Many state education agencies and school districts are seeking feedback from stakeholder groups like educators and parents to help inform their decision-making process. When there are opportunities to share your voice and provide input, do so. Complaining on social media can be cathartic, but make it productive by engaging with those leaders with the power to create meaningful change.
  • Volunteer. Whether your school district is starting virtually or in-person, school leaders are anticipating far greater need this year with funding, supplies, and staffing supports. Volunteering to help with after-school childcare and donating cleaning supplies is one of the best ways to support our school leaders as they begin the huge undertaking of reopening our nation’s schools.
  • Comply with public health and safety guidelines. School officials are not public health experts, but in nearly every case, they have been working around the clock with local health departments to create safety guidelines for school reopenings. Parents and educators, encourage your students to learn and follow those guidelines. Now is the time to start having those tough conversations with kids about the importance of face coverings and keeping their distance from friends.
  • Acknowledge that trade-offs will occur. School officials across the country have reiterated that student and staff safety must be the M.O. for any in-person reopenings this fall, and that may mean factors like athletics and after-school programs will have to wait on the backburner for now. Balancing the needs of multiple stakeholder groups is challenging in even the best of school years, but even more so during a global pandemic. Let’s celebrate our leaders making tough decisions in the interest of student and staff safety. 

Our nation’s school leaders need no encomium. The great stresses and strains they face are merely commensurate with the trust placed in them to foster conditions for meaningful learning among the thousands of students in their communities, regardless of prosperity or adversity. But COVID-19 is no traditional adversity. The landscape in which we find ourselves, wrought with isolation and distance, is antithetical to the very values American public education has always held dear: relationships, collaboration, togetherness. Navigating this crisis will require taking actions that may seem diametrically opposed to those core principles. 

Even the brightest, most innovative school leaders will be unable to find a solution that satisfies the needs of every stakeholder. There may not even be a single good solution. But success never comes from casting stones alone. As schools around the nation prepare to reopen this month, let’s remember to support our leaders throughout the process. Their success is our success.

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